Theater In Conversation
The Industry Standard is Producing a New Generation of Theater
It might not be surprising to learn that the vast majority of producers and investors on Broadway are white. In response, The Industry Standard Group (TISG) launched the first multicultural commercial investment and producing organization in October 2020.
The organization's eight co-founders—Rashad V. Chambers, Miranda Gohh, Adam Hyndman, Toni R. Isreal, Rob Laqui, Sammy Lopez, Ronee Penoi, and Cynthia J. Tong—are working on developing a new funding model in order to obtain exclusively BIPOC stakeholders. Their goal is to bring them in at a lower threshold than traditional Broadway financial offerings. With this model, TISG aims to create access, disrupt traditional thinking, and support and cultivate BIPOC producers, investors, and BIPOC-led projects.
The co-founders hosted a roundtable discussion over Zoom to reflect on the building process and where they are so far.
Cynthia J. Tong: Let’s discuss the business and organizational structures we at TISG are working to shift.
Rashad V. Chambers: We’re working to dismantle the barriers of entry, particularly for BIPOC who may not have the connections to produce or invest in the commercial landscape. This includes dismantling systemic bias and racism that may be lying below the surface. We’re finding a way to disrupt the current model that perpetuates these problems.
Adam Hyndman: Another structure we're trying to dismantle is the barrier of transparency, or insider knowledge required to participate. Pipelines that uphold elitism and privilege.
Sammy Lopez: We’re directly addressing the commercial theater. Producing and investing. The invite hasn't necessarily been there for BIPOC folx to be at those tables.
Rob Laqui: The hierarchy of decision making in most traditional structures in businesses and organizations comes from the people on top and then pyramids down. We’re exploring something that looks more like a circle with equidistant points.
Toni R. Isreal: I do feel we're dismantling the systemic table, and we're building our own table. In a nutshell, we're starting something new.
Tong: What is it like to build this way and what have been the challenges?
Ronee Penoi: There's a myth that your options are either hierarchy or death by committee. We have to live in our current society while we're moving to build the one that we want to live in, but there's a whole world of ways to lead and structure in between that. TISG is building by playing to each other's strengths and interests. To do that requires a lot more constant conversation and checking in. Everyone in this group can be an authority on something. There are micro areas of expertise, but fundamentally, we all share ownership of this thing we’re building with a series of strategic intentions.
Laqui: To piggyback off that, we participate collectively in a decision-making process, where we're all gleaning knowledge from each other as opposed to only a few holding information and power. The goal is that we're all lifting each other up, and then hopefully bringing the entire organization upwards with us.
Lopez: The hardest part for me is breaking my mindset. For example, we’ve been ingrained in this system of how meetings work. I’ve had that uncomfortable, but encouraging realization that there’s not a singular path of communication. Honestly, I've been discovering how we’re operating often feels more productive.
Hyndman: It allows for built-in accountability, it encourages clear and transparent communication, and it forces us to make space and time for collaboration.
Tong: We’re intentionally structuring ourselves differently.
Hyndman: We believe that leadership and decision making for the future of the arts should not be limited to a select few. That is not representative of the world at large, or even the field and industry itself. If we aren’t intentional about new ways for organization and structure, then we lay traps of falling into the same systems of power that can easily oppress marginalized folx.
Laqui: Exactly! That’s something we’ve been very conscious of, particularly since we’ve chosen to engage commercial theater and Broadway.
Chambers: We’re tackling the commercial theater landscape and Broadway specifically because it gives us the ability to make the biggest impact. Even though there’s amazing theater happening all around, for most people, Broadway is still the pinnacle. We want to give more and different kinds of people the power to decide what type of material should be developed and produced for Broadway.
Tong: I agree, Rashad. I didn’t grow up participating in theater productions. My access point as a young audience member was Broadway.
Laqui: There's also a really interesting duality in commercial theater producing. We know there are people that have “held the reins” in terms of decision making, but also, commercial theater producing in many ways is one of the most flexible industries that I've ever encountered. So we feel like we can start to shift how things in the process work. Even if we use the same measure for success, we can achieve it in a different way and still serve a community responsibly.
Hyndman: And the commercial theater model has a traditional rote and specific manner by which it operates. Those deeply grooved patterns allow for great possibilities to break up a type of stagnation that is not serving the industry as a whole and is actually holding us back from the future of what is possible for Broadway.
Miranda Gohh: There’s a lot of talk about representation, but behind the scenes, there has been such a lack of BIPOC producers and community that even last summer, most of us didn’t know that the others in this group existed in the industry. Producing can be isolating. So that aspect of TISG in and of itself is exciting to me in terms of disruption. Now, we are breaking down the doors, and introducing the BIPOC community to each other and allowing ourselves to learn from one another
Tong: I’m curious, how do you think we’ve grown from June 2020 to now?
Isreal: TISG started out as a conversation with a few of us just talking about the lack of BIPOC producers. Now, it’s the eight of us actually trying to make room for more BIPOC. That’s exciting!
Chambers: I'm coming off of my fourth Broadway show, and we all know that there were just a sprinkle of Black producers. When we started meeting I was excited, but I didn't really know what to expect. During our weekly calls it became very evident that we were creating something unique and special that would help us achieve the things that we've been discussing in terms of access, disruption, transparency, better communication, and a pipeline of opportunities. Where we are now—well, Rome wasn't built in a day. And so, we are getting very close to being able to really launch.
Laqui: Even as the evolution of our goals has changed from conversation to practical build, the importance of the mission has never really changed. Going back and looking at it, it's still really applicable and resonant with the actions we're continuing to take. It’s also such a different model than I ever thought it was going to be! We aren’t planning on traditional Broadway offerings, which are high risk but offer possible high rewards. We’re trying to serve communities, give real access into this industry, and change it from the inside out. I think that's revolutionary in its own way.
Tong: Even in our earliest discussions, when we first discussed having only BIPOC stakeholders, it felt radical in the moment. Then, we realized we had to do it, and now it feels integral to our mission. So that’s incredibly motivating.
Hyndman: We started with some preconceived notions about what producing or starting a fund had to be. I think we ended up in a place where we had to be accountable and in relationship to the values we set out to serve. We had to disrupt where we were placing the value of profit in our mission; there's transparency around that switch in mindset and mission. At first, we were still holding on to the idea that there was one way to participate, but we felt very called to disrupting in this way in terms of the financial model.
Lopez: Exactly, Adam. I think one of the challenges for us is operating within this very capitalist industry, while leading with an anti-capitalist mindset. The system has worked for a lot of these producers for many years, which is why they're not seeking to change it.
Tong: The mission has informed our innovation. When Rashad and I met with a lawyer specializing in impact funds, we learned exactly why we are building the way we are building, which is based on what the laws around securities and investments allows and doesn't allow us to do. That has also driven our creative solutions.
Lopez: Let’s discuss the partnerships we are building. We’re looking to align ourselves with other organizations, particularly other BIPOC-led groups, that are also pushing the industry forward.
Tong: Definitely. Bridge-building. It's funny because it's not in our mission but now it's inherent in how we operate.
Penoi: We realized fundamentally that we can't be the only people doing that work or it won't work. So, aligning ourselves with the other folx doing that work is going to allow us to build that vision with intention, and in a way that feels naturally abundant in sharing resources with other groups.
Isreal: I think people are definitely intrigued with TISG, and our allies are going to buy in because they want to help, they want to help us disrupt, and they want to disrupt themselves.
Chambers: There is such a rich opportunity for collaboration across the board with a number of institutions and organizations who all want to see a change. Not just in producing, but also in areas that are typically dominated by our white allies, whether that's press or general management or casting. To see diversity of all levels throughout theater, that's a hope of mine.
Hyndman: In conclusion, what are our hopes for the future of commercial theater producing?
Chambers: I hope for an industry where you can be whatever you want to be. I know we aren't alone in feeling that it's not enough to just have people of color onstage and not behind the scenes. We want to be a catalyst for that because our organization is made up of a wide variety of ethnicities, skill sets, and interests. Ultimately, we hope to be an organization that the theater industry can look to, and help shape mindsets to make meaningful change.